Thursday, 2 April 2009

Michael Symmons Roberts, The Half Healed (Cape, 2008)

This is Michael Symmons Roberts's fifth collection of poetry and I'm really enjoying making my way through it. He returns to the theme of the body, but this time in the context of violence and destruction. Much of the collection is set in war torn cities, with the image of the hotel, abandoned, gutted, destroyed, as a recurring motif. These hotel rooms can be the site of a couple making love in 'Armistice', or there's the beautiful deserted room in 'Room 260', with its pristine abandoned perfection that is touched only once a year, in mid-July: by 'a perfect | coin of gold light prints onto the wall: | a gift of imperfection, | blemish in the blackout seal.' It is a kind of Newgrange soltice scene. The imagery is complex and enjoyably so. The name 'Intercontinental' recurs, which is meant to resonate the way it does. Symmons Roberts has a great sense of how some of these words and names can be completely transformed by some action, by events. There is a series of poems call 'Last Words', commissioned by the BBC to commemorate 9/11 and which takes as its theme the text messages sent by those in the planes that flew into the Twin Towers. There is anger in these poems, but it is controlled, never allowed to take over. The poems have, too, a great melancholy, a great sense of loss, of what we have lost. There's a lot at stake. The religious language, used by the poet so often and so effectively, and the way that language is transformed or carried out of meaningfulness is another powerful theme that resonates throughout the collection (and his work more generally).

I print in full a poem entitled 'Hooded'.

Six men, hooded, face a wall on knees,
hands bound behind their backs.
How did it come to this?

Ancentral, printed deep, a lineage
through hangman, ku klux klan,
back through the polar pioneers

to foxglove, bluebell, capuchin,
robin and red riding back
to killers, cobras, kings in hiding,

anoraks and duffels, pac-a-macs,
a lizard's ruff on burning sand,
a harebell, snail shell, cadillacs

with soft tops, trout tucked in weed,
shelter, uniform, ashes and sack,
a fashion choice, a rule, a creed,

back to blind, wink, skin-shade
to protect the blue, brown, green,
so yes, the first hood was an eyelid.

And now we hood our enemies
to blind them. Keep an eye on that irony.

This work is strong, important and beautiful.

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